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What tone will next CentCom leader set for civilian-military alliances?

TAMPA — Four-star Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, the president's pick to run U.S. Central Command at MacDill Air Force Base, may not take over for months. His appointment awaits Senate approval.

But in the civilian world, minds are busy.

Already, MacDill friend John Osterweil has offered to throw a reception to welcome Austin and to thank outgoing Marine Gen. James Mattis for his service.

Will the new commander greet Tampa with skepticism or open arms? Few would have posed the question before this fall, when a doctor's wife who mingled with the military helped lay bare the marital infidelity of Gen. David Petraeus.

Little in Austin's past suggests that he would shun a welcome mat from a city he came to know earlier in his career. And in a brief statement his spokeswoman provided late Friday to the Tampa Bay Times, the general had this to say:

"I am honored and humbled by the president's intent to nominate me as the next commander of U.S. Central Command. My previous experience in Tampa was wonderful, and if confirmed, I look forward to the opportunity to serve there again. Until such time, I remain focused on my current duties as the vice chief of staff of the Army."

It was Austin's first public comment on the nomination.

He didn't mention civilians, but he and his wife, Charlene, have a record of overtures to the communities where they have settled.

"Even today, when I get to go back home, people ask me about the Austins," Secretary of the Army John McHugh said in January before swearing in Austin as vice chief of staff.

McHugh's hometown? Watertown, N.Y., and neighboring Fort Drum, which Austin commanded from 2003 to 2005, before a short assignment in Tampa as chief of staff at Central Command. This summer, Austin returned to Watertown for a ceremony in a shopping mall, one to mark the continuation of a covenant between Fort Drum and the tricounty civilian community.

"We have grown and prospered together," Austin told his former neighbors. "I have no doubt that we will continue to do so in the months and years ahead."

• • •

Judging from recent reports, one might gather that MacDill's union with Tampa fits best in a cocktail shaker — two jiggers of military groupie and warrior chief, served with a splash of Bayshore Boulevard privilege.

Art gallery owner Rob Rowen, who lives in St. Petersburg but works in South Tampa, points out what is sometimes overlooked: the day-to-day interactions between residents and service members, no matter their rank or nation of origin.

He's proud of the bay area's record of assisting the base, in ways that often have nothing to do with parties.

"It's really about the community supporting these soldiers," he said.

On Thanksgiving, he and other civilians found spots around their dining room tables for international coalition members stationed at MacDill. At times, people off base have helped to cover medical expenses for coalition families without insurance. They give to wounded-warrior programs.

"When we first started upping the war," Rowen said, "I met a sergeant who was a chaplain at Central Command. He said, 'All those young people being sent in, they're working them to death.' "

The response from civilians: tickets to hockey games and concerts for those on leave.

The support gets noticed by base leaders.

In an interview with the Times, Col. Scott DeThomas, commander of MacDill's 6th Air Mobility Wing, cited examples.

Dinner for 100 airmen, put on by a community group. The delivery of 600 Christmas trees to the base.

"It seems like every day there's something going on that is a direct result of the support we have from the community," he said. "We can't let that stray just because of the onesies and twosies that may or may not bring discredit to the program."

The base's Friends of MacDill program, which allows unescorted daytime access to about 800 civilians, will continue in 2013, he said, but with tweaking to make sure people don't abuse the access.

One pass had gone to Bayshore resident Jill Kelley, whose tip led to the FBI scrutiny of Petraeus and of emails Kelley exchanged with Gen. John Allen. Questions have been raised about how she used her influence, both as an honorary consul for South Korea and as a woman who threw around the names of generals.

Rowen sees the Kelley episode as an isolated occurrence.

So does Osterweil, a Tampa memorabilia company owner who put out feelers for a reception for Gens. Mattis and Austin.

"Maybe there's a blip in the highway," Osterweil said, "but for the most part, it's a paved road."

• • •

Austin, by published accounts, has avoided blips on his own highway.

True, the phrase "love affair" came up in New York this year. But it was used by Austin's boss, McHugh, to describe how Watertown felt about the general and his wife.

Fayetteville, N.C., shares the sentiment.

Charlene Austin?

"One of my great former board members," United Way president and CEO Robert Hines said.

He remembers first meeting her and telling her about the 9,000 military kids in the community. Fort Bragg alone supports 40 Boy Scout troops, he said. He told her all of the various ways the United Way helps military families.

"I had no idea," he recalls her saying.

"No one would," he assured her, "unless we show you the numbers."

She signed on to help sort out the need. And when the Austins left Fort Bragg after the general's promotion to vice chief of staff for the Army, she prepared an incoming commander's wife to take her place at United Way.

At Austin's swearing-in ceremony last January, he paused his acceptance speech to hand his wife a bouquet of roses, noting that it would keep him in her good graces.

He has been described as a hard-working, no-nonsense leader who doesn't seek the spotlight. He did open up during the last days of the Iraq war for a 3,300-word Ebony profile published in February. Journalist Kevin Chappell, embedded in the combat zone with Austin, described the 6-foot-4 general as "reflective and humble."

Austin credited his late mother and her priceless guidance. He said she taught him to do the right thing even when no one is watching.

• • •

In Tampa, gallery owner Rowen hears favorable assessments of the general.

"I've heard he has a good military mind, he's also very personable with people, and he's about getting the job done, which is what Gen. Mattis was about, too," Rowen said.

Rowen, 59, once marched against the Vietnam War.

He became involved with the base more than a decade ago, as incoming president of the South Tampa Chamber of Commerce. One of his two Nuance Galleries is in South Tampa.

He wanted to help. He started by partnering with a wing commander to arrange mentors for kids in schools near the base.

On tours, his eyes were opened to scenes of 19-year-olds catapulting jets off aircraft carriers and taking on other positions of great responsibility. He got to know generals but also those who answer to them.

"The biggest problem for me," he said, "is that people come here for a year or two or three, and then they leave, and it's so sad."

Relationships. Always vulnerable. But he keeps in touch with his distant military friends by email and Skype.

And, as for the community's ties to MacDill, he looks to Gen. Austin to keep channels open.

"If he comes in with the attitude of 'let's shut this down, there's no more working with the community,' " Rowen said, "it would be a sin in a sense."

Staff writer Elizabeth Behrman and news researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Patty Ryan can be reached at pryan@tampabay.com or (813) 226-3382.

What tone will next CentCom leader set for civilian-military alliances? 12/15/12 [Last modified: Sunday, December 16, 2012 12:18am]
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